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Larry Aldrich Foundation Award Winner—Janine Antoni’s Recurring Themes Continue To Shift And Emerge

January 24, 2001

SHANNON HICKS

    Larry Aldrich Foundation Award Winner-

    Janine Antoni’s Recurring Themes Continue To Shift And Emerge

    By Shannon Hicks

    RIDGEFIELD – The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art could not have found a more deserving artist to honor with its 1999 Larry Aldrich Foundation Award than Janine Antoni.

    The annual award honors an American artist who has been selected as someone whose work “has had a significant impact on contemporary visual culture during the previous three years.” An independent jury of artists, collectors, critics, curators, and galleries selects the winner.

    The award was inaugurated in 1993, and since 1995 the honoree has received $25,000 (one of the largest cash prizes in the art world) and the opportunity for an exhibition at the Aldrich. Ms Antoni is the second artist who has so far taken the museum up on its offer for the exhibition space; her predecessor was Bruce Nauman, the 1995 winner, who mounted a retrospective of his oeuvre in 1997.

    Last Sunday afternoon, a few hundred people braved the roads that had been just hours earlier cleared of the region’s latest snowfall to attend a major reception at the Main Street museum. The museum was celebrating the opening of its three new winter exhibitions: “Paper,” on the museum’s second and third floors; “Systematic Drawings: Janet Cohen and John F. Simon, Jr,” in the main floor Erna D. Leir Gallery; and “The Girl Made of Butter,” occupying part of the second floor. The latter is the resulting exhibition that came with the honor of Janine Antoni being named the 1999 Larry Aldrich Award winner.

    The inventive, recent works featured in “The Girl Made of Butter” were conceptualized during the artist’s residency at WanÃ¥s Foundation in Knislinge, Sweden. The grounds of WanÃ¥s are located on a Medieval estate and include a castle, a barn, and a sculpture park. The purpose of the foundation is to encourage contemporary art by organizing exhibitions at WanÃ¥s.

    Wanås Foundation was founded in 1994, but the park at Wanås had been housing a growing permanent collection by international artists since 1987.

    The empty grain barn at WanÃ¥s, built in 1823, stopped being used for its original purpose years ago. The building has been completely renovated and was taken over in its entirety for the sole purpose of artistic use in 1991, and the building presents biennally-rotating exhibitions of work by visiting artists. “WanÃ¥s 2000″ included works by Ms Antoni, a sculptor and performance artist.

    Janine Antoni was born in January 1964 in Freeport, Bahamas. She celebrated her 37th birthday last Friday and currently maintains her studio in New York City. Her initial public recognition came in 1991 for a piece called “Gnaw,” and her career has exploded since then.

    Her resume of the last five years alone reads like a who’s who of major museums and galleries. She has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad. There have been solo shows at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, among numerous others.

    Ms Antoni’s work has also been included in group shows such as one at Real Art Ways in Hartford last year; the 1999 Liverpool Biennial; the monumental two-part survey “The American Century: Art & Culture, 1900-2000″ at Whitney Museum; “Open Ends,” another show of 1999, this one at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; and major biennale exhibits in Johannesburg, Istanbul, Venice, and Kwangju, Korea.

    Janine Antoni uses her body to create the majority of her artwork. She used her teeth to chip away at separate 600-pound blocks of lard and chocolate for the aforementioned 1991 work “Gnaw.” The following year she dipped her locks into a bucket of hair dye and then mopped – or “drew on” – the floor for a performance piece called “Loving Care.”

    More recently, the inventive artist veiled herself with uncured bull rawhide and then kneeled on all fours. This last project, which resulted in a 2000 sculpture called “Saddle,” was among the works Janine Antoni presented as part of her contribution to the tenth annual biennial in Sweden, “WanÃ¥s 2000.” The work is now included in the Aldrich’s “The Girl Made of Butter.”

    Also resulting from Ms Antoni’s residency in Knislinge was a 22 by 22-inch C-print called “2038.” In the photograph, the artist is soaking in a bathtub that is used on the still-working dairy farm at WanÃ¥s. While the artist is bathing, a cow has approached the trough to take a drink of water.

    Another work from WanÃ¥s is “Bridle,” a sculpture that was created from fur-covered hide stretched vertically. On the front of the hide is a backpack, also created from fur-covered hide. The backpack’s straps emerge on the back of the hide.

    While in Sweden, Ms Antoni’s works centered on the theme of the cow, which relates back to her longstanding theme of nurturing, or motherhood. She has during the course of her career also looked carefully at herself, and at birth, and the Bible.

    The cow works done in Sweden are juxtaposed – and receiving their American debut – in Ridgefield with earlier, yet thematically related, pieces by Ms Antoni. According to the Aldrich, such a comparison between the two stages of the artist’s career provides a context for the new work “both in light of Antoni’s extraordinary career and the greater thematic issues she explores.”

    “Momme,” for instance, is a portrait of a barefoot woman – the artist’s mother, in fact – seated on a Victorian-era settee in a spacious room with wooden floors and molding. The subject is gazing, seemingly contentedly, and certainly calmly, out a window. The 1995 portrait appears at first to simply present a woman who seems to be pregnant, resting on a couch.

    But because this is Janine Antoni’s work, there is obviously more going on here than what first meets the eye. Look closer. There are actually three feet poking out from the hem of the sitter’s gauze dress. The photo presents the artist, who has climbed under her mother’s dress. The appearance of the sitter as being pregnant, the artist has said in the past, is the artist’s desire to present every person’s wish at one time or another to return to the protectiveness of a mother’s womb.

    “The Girl Made of Butter” fills one full gallery on the second floor of the Aldrich, and another room in a second gallery area on the same floor. It will remain on view through May 20, and it is well worth the visit. Once an understanding of the artist’s past creativity is gained the recent work by this American talent can be appreciated that much more, as can be the decision by the 1999 jury that selected Ms Antoni as its Aldrich Foundation Award winner.

    The Strength Of Paper

    Also on view through May 20 is “Paper,” a survey of contemporary work by artists who use paper “not merely as a support for paint or pencil, but as a sculptural medium in its own right,” according to curator Jessica Hough and museum director Harry Philbrick.

    “Paper” includes works by 12 artists, presenting visitors with 29 pieces to contemplate (18 are listed in the show catalogue, although Allyson Strafella’s collection of untitled typewriter drawings and wall drawings number 11 separate, and individually titled, works). The works extend outdoors as well as within the traditional gallery space offered across the second and third floors of the Aldrich.

    Steven Siegel’s “Thirds” follows the artist’s long-ambitious approach to his temporary installation pieces. Mr Siegel has in the past made “ambitious abstract sculptures,” according to the catalogue, out of newspaper and other discarded materials at locations across the country. Even with the fragility of newsprint, he often works outdoors to purposely take advantage of nature’s impact on his sculptures.

    Mr Siegel did not have to wait long to see those impacts this time around. “Thirds” is a large spiraling stack of newspapers, with one-third of the stack resting in the protected comfort of the Aldrich’s lobby and the other two thirds piled against the window of the lobby. With the snowstorms that piled into the region last weekend, the elements have already begun to take a toll on the newspapers.

    The window dividing the interior and exterior spirals not only allows visitors to watch the decomposition of Mr Siegel’s artwork, it also helps make the artist’s point: We are a society of terrible waste, and it takes a long time for the elements to decompose everything we simply throw away.

    Upstairs, Jyung Mee Park’s installation of four tall sculptures occupies a side room of its own, and visitors are forced to come up with their own ideas of what they are looking at. Are they pinecones? Artichokes? Tear drops? The decision is left up to the viewer because the title of each piece, “Untitled,” does not offer any clues.

    Ms Park’s work is made of thousands of sheets of rice paper, each of which is folded and crimped by hand and put into place to create the larger form. According to the exhibition catalogue, the work is often built with the aid of numerous helpers who labor together over a period of time.

    Each of the remaining ten artists represented in “Paper” offers a compelling new way of looking at the surprising strength (Elizabeth Duffy’s works, many made only from pages of telephone books, look deceptively strong), durability (see Ms Strafella’s collection of carbon paper “drawings,” some of which date back ten years), fragility, and flexibility.

    The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, at 258 Main Street (Route 35) in Ridgefield, can be reached by phone at 203/438-4519 or visited on the Web at http://www.aldrichart.org. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday.